Interview with TIME.com
Kissinger on Putin: "He Thinks He is a Reformer"
TIME.com - December 5, 2007
By Romesh Ratnesar
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is well acquainted with Vladimir Putin. TIME met with Kissinger in Washington and they discussed the Russian President's recent moves, his legacy, and how the U.S. should deal with a resurgent Russia.
Vladimir Putin's chosen successor, Dmitiri Medvedev, says he would like President Putin to stay in the Kremlin as Prime Minister. That doesn't sound much like a democratic transition.
Clearly Putin is the dominant personality in Russia today. Having headed the ballot of the United Russia Party that gained 64.3% of the vote, he controls the Russian parliament, the Duma. At the same time, I do not consider Russia a dictatorial state. A vote of 64.3% shows that there is a significant part of the population that did not vote for Putin. The position of Prime Minister has a different constitutional basis than president. There is therefore considerable scope for evolution. America must not confuse foreign policy towards Russia with seeking to prescribe historical processes. It is important to get our priorities right. Restructuring the domestic situation of Russia cannot be achieved by American designs – particularly in the short term. Russia is a vast country adjoining China, the Islamic world and Europe. Cooperative relations with it are important for peace and global solutions. Of course we have our preferences, and of course we have our sympathies, but we also have to deal with a government in Russia that exists. And we need some understanding for the adjustments required by a country in a period of transition.
How do you explain the gap between how President Putin is perceived by some in the West – as aggressive, authoritarian, undemocratic – and the support he enjoys among Russians?
In Russia, he is popular because he became President at what Russians consider a low point in their history. Putin became President during a period when the Soviet Empire had disintegrated and with it 300 years of Russian history. Economically, the Russian ruble collapsed. The Russian people judge him by the difference in the standard of living today compared to what existed when he took over.
They also value him for having restored Russia, in their mind, to a respected place in the international system. And probably many of them think that the system is more responsive to the public than previous systems, though we would not call it democratic by Western standards.
You've met him many times. What is he like in person?
He is extremely intelligent, very focused on the subject under discussion and very familiar with the issues in foreign policy. He does not try to sweep you away with personal charm. It is a combination of aloofness, considerable intelligence, strategic grasp and Russian nationalism.
What kind of relationship does he want Russia to have with the West?
I don't believe he looks at the West as a unified bloc. Since he conducts foreign policy by his perception of the national interest, he is not beyond exploiting the differences within the West to enhance Russia's position. The idea that Russia will join a democratic community, or even a Western community, is not his principal motivation. What he seeks, above all, is respect for a Russia defining its own identity. In my opinion, he would value friendly relations and cooperative relations with the United States – but on the basis of a clear perception by each side of its national interests and respect for them.
So how would you assess the state of relations between Moscow and Washington?Putin's personal relations with Bush are very good. When Bush at their very first meeting said he had looked into Putin's eyes and discovered a compatible soul, that was ridiculed in the American
press. But to Putin, it was a recognition of equality and eligibility for equal partnernership with the U.S. What he has respected about Bush is that [the President] generally does not lecture him. He does not mind that Bush is tough in his defense of the American national interest, because that is what he expects statesmen to do.
On other levels, there have occasionally been problems. Both sides in theory want to cooperate with each other, but both sides do things which get under the skin of the other. It gets under the Russian skin when we lecture them about their domestic situation. Or when leading Americans ostentatiously meet with opponents of the regime on high-level visits to Moscow. Or when we extend NATO into territories close to the Russian border. We are irritated when Russian leaders don't treat neighboring countries as truly independent. And there are many Americans who have very strong views about the Russian domestic situation. So there are cycles, and some of the issues have a long history.
On the other hand, there is a profound need for cooperation. There is too much of a tendency to treat Russia as if it were a global threat to the U.S. Russia has enormous problems of its own. It has long and unstable frontiers. It has a truly appalling death rate. It has a declining population. And so Russia should not be viewed as a global threat. But it wants to be respected as a significant power. The issue is whether we can develop a constructive relationship with a country whose cooperation we need in relation to Iran and to some extent Iraq and with a Middle East peace settlement. They are also an essential partner for new issues like energy and environment that can only be solved on a global basis rather than competition.
You mentioned Iran. Do you believe that what's come out of the latest NIE report will make it more difficult for the U.S. to convince Russia to maintain a united front with us against Iran's nuclear program?
In my view, the Russians' strategic assessment of the nuclear problem posed by Iran is almost the same as ours. The tactical conclusions they draw for the immediate future are different, however. They differ as to the imminence of the Iranian strategic threat. But if Russians became convinced that the threat were imminent, then we would be together. The question is whether this isn't so late in the process that you can't act meaningfully anymore.
We've talked briefly about the domestic situation in Russia. Doesn't the U.S. have an interest in speaking out about things like the curtailing of political freedom and civil liberties?
It is important to understand what Putin represents. Putin is not a Stalin who feels obliged to destroy anyone who might potentially at some future point disagree with him. Putin is somebody who wants to amass the power needed to accomplish his immediate task. Therefore we do not observe a general assault on civil liberties. We do see the infringement of civil liberties of groups who, in his view, threaten the regime. The process is uneven. Television is controlled; newspapers are substantially free. But the idea that America has the power to change Russia's domestic structure by threats is an invitation to permanent crisis. America has to stand for democratic values. And it should seek to advocate human rights. But it has to bring these goals into relationship with other objectives.
Both Putin and Bush are entering their last year as Presidents. You speak to both of them. What can they achieve together before they leave office?
Putin does not want to see a hegemonical United States, because a hegemonical United States by definition has no restraints on it as far as Russia is concerned. So where he can, he will try to balance us: not deprive us of where we are but keep us from going further. At the same time, in Putin's geostrategic conception, America would be the logical partner for Russia. We're not on Russia's border. We don't want any of Russia's territory. We have no history of wanting Russian territory, and we are very powerful. We can collaborate on global security. And prestige attaches to Russia for being associated with us. All this reality provides opportunities if we can relate our missionary bent to strategic objectives. Iran, the Middle East peace process, a global approach to non-proliferation are all opportunities.
What does Russia believe it has to gain from a partnership with the U.S.?
First of all, security. Secondly, prestige. Thirdly, economic cooperation on global issues. Russia touches Asia, the Middle East and Europe. And it has no natural allies anywhere. It has no tradition of willing allies where it had no soldiers. Historically, it identified its greatness with an expansionist foreign policy. Now the imperialist aspect of Russian policy has ended the cold war. They no longer have the resources to do it. That requires a new Russian policy but also some time to develop it and get used to it.
How will historians assess Putin's presidency and his significance?
For Americans it's hard to get into the Russian psyche. If you take the great Russian reformers, like Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, they were very autocratic at home and yet progressive by contemporary Western standards. Catherine the Great had close relations with the philosophes. Peter the Great lived in Europe for a year and constantly sent missions to Europe. Yet internally they thought Russia had to be organized so that the maximum abilities of the society could be concentrated on the state. If you look at Putin in this context, he thinks he is a reformer. He probably will be considered a seminal figure in his country's history, but he is not a democrat.
How will he be rated? Too early to tell. Certainly as significant. Great? Well, we'll have to see. A leader becomes great if he institutionalizes a system, if it doesn't become totally dependent on one person. It remains to be seen whether Putin is able to do that.